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Cohn: Despite rough stretch, don't count out Giants


Several years ago — it was before the Giants won two World Series — I walked into Brian Sabean's office overlooking the field at Scottsdale Stadium during spring training. As he motioned me to a chair, I glanced at his desk. It was piled high with computer printouts that looked like the entire Genome Project.

He pointed to the stacks of paper and started riffling through them. He muttered to himself.

He told me the printouts showed the new reality of baseball. Data proved teams would get a certain window of opportunity to win a world championship. The window would be brief and fleeting and, quickly, the window would close.

He told me the Giants were at the window, peeking into the room. Or something like that.

I took him seriously because I always take Brian Sabean seriously — even when he's not serious.

And he was right. The Giants, up to now, had a three-year window and they aggressively dove through the window, broke the glass, took over the mansion, ate pizza on the fancy couches in the living room.

Has the window of opportunity closed?

That is the operative question as the Giants approach July, as they approach the halfway point of this season with a so-so record.

The answer?

We don't know yet.

Some things we do know. The Giants' pitching is a head-scratcher. It's weird when one starter — Barry Zito — can pitch great at home and is Flop Central on the road. It's weird when another starter Tim Lincecum — can't throw the ball where he wants. It's weird when a championship team has no fifth starter, at least for now, or a set-up man in the bullpen — Santiago Casilla on the disabled list.

And it's certainly weird when an elite team — or a formerly-elite team — can't hit with power and doesn't have a proven center fielder, Angel Pagan, who also happens to be the leadoff hitter. And it's weird when everyone is hailing Pablo Sandoval, just off the disabled list, as the savior — he can jack a ball — even though the savior never stays in shape and doesn't seem to care.

The Giants have issues.

They have so many issues manager Bruce Bochy seems distracted and nervous. Bochy usually is so balanced in his approach to baseball and life it's impossible to picture him nervous. But there he is after games drumming his fingers on the desk of the interview room, uncomfortable answering the same questions about the hitting power outage and, frankly, wanting to get the hell out of there.

Despite all this — and there's a lot of "this" — the Giants are alive, if not well, and it's impossible to say the window of opportunity has closed. You want to know why it's impossible to say?

The Giants play in the National League West.

The National League West is a division unlike other divisions. It has a reality all its own. Call it reality surreal. It will be up for grabs all season. Its very existence helps sick teams like the Giants get well. That's partly because most of the NL West teams have sicknesses of their own. Despite Monday night's loss to the Dodgers, the division will not be decided anytime soon.

The Dodgers are the most talented team in the division. They have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, whoever Yasiel Puig is. But the Dodgers, strangely, have a crummy record and show no signs of being un-crummy.

The Rockies lost superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The Padres lost their shortstop Everth Cabrera, at least for a while. The Diamondbacks have so many guys hurt their clubhouse seems like an emergency room.

The point?

Any of these teams — maybe even L.A. — can win the West.

Why is it important to win the division outright?

Because no wild-card team is coming out of the NL West. The NL Central is a better division. Assuming the Cardinals win that division — only an assumption at this point — the NL wild cards will likely be the Pirates and Reds. There won't be a wild card from the West. The credo in the NL West will be: Win it or die.

Does this mean the undertaker is fitting the Giants for a coffin? No way.

The Giants used to be able to pitch. Maybe they will pitch again some day. Ryan Vogelsong will come back and he has been good. But as they say on the prospectus for your large-cap stock mutual fund, past performance does not guarantee future results. And Casilla will come back. And Lincecum may remember how to pitch, and Zito may learn to pitch in away games.

And here's the deal. If the Giants win the division and sneak into the playoffs, they will be deadly instead of just plain dead.

Sabean always says the postseason is another season, and pitching rules. And in the postseason the Giants' pitchers pitch and they do rule. It's what he said that day among the paper stacks on his overloaded desk when he spoke about windows of opportunity.

For all we know the Giants' window hasn't closed permanently. The custodial staff temporarily shut it to wash the panes with brushes and the long poles with the thingy on the end.

They plan to open the window any day now.

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For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.